InHATSAPP WHICH 2 billion people send about 100 billion messages a day, rarely getting into the news. If so, the stories are mostly about whether to step up competition, separate it from its corporate mother, Facebook – a company that rarely gets in the news.
The difference in visibility is fundamental to the businesses involved. A firm on social media, such as Facebook, exists in order to pay attention to things because its business model is based on selling attention to advertisers. What and who attracts attention, and what can be done to keep it away from individuals and ideas, are controversial issues. Messaging services, such as WhatsApp, for the most part just allow people to stay in touch with their families and chat with groups of friends and associates. In many places, they are increasingly offering ways to connect with businesses. They are of practical use in the sense that social networks generally do not (never try to arrange cocktails via Twitter). But because they are removed from the public sphere, they cause far less outrage and controversy and much less controversy over regulation.
Perhaps this started to change on January 6 for two reasons. One was that Facebook announced a revision of the WhatsApp terms of service, which many believed would have their personal data being used for a wider range of purposes. The result was a hasty download of Telegram and Signal, two programs with a much smaller user base – about 500m for Telegram, much less for Signal – that sell themselves on promises of improved privacy (see chart). Between January 6 and 19, Signal was downloaded 45 million times and Telegram – 36 million, according to Sensor Tower, the data provider. Telegram head Pavel Durov called it “the largest digital migration in human history.”
Another event on January 6 was the uprising at the United States Capitol. After that, Apple removed from its app store Parler, a Twitter clone in which people expressed feelings like “we need to start systematically killing #liberal leaders,” and Amazon stopped hosting the company in its cloud. As a result, groups such as the Proud Boys, “Western chauvinists” who have a taste for violence, rushed to the Telegram.
What was said on Parler immediately began to reappear on some public Telegram channels. Telegram has removed some of the public channels in question. But this did not silence such conversations. According to Alexander Urman of the University of Bern, who studies the political use of online media, public channels are used to attract new members to private groups where conversation can lead to action. And Telegram generally refuses to disclose what is happening in its private channels. Prior to Joe Biden’s inauguration, there were concerns that these channels would be used to plan violent attacks. In the case, fortunately, such attacks did not occur, but the risks remain.
The growing use of Telegram and Signal may well exacerbate such concerns. But messaging services also have a much broader and more balanced beneficial impact on online life. Social media provides a “public sphere”, both global and noisy, in which the worst is likely to spread most likely. In the private world of messaging applications it has been possible to restore some dams that allow the river of human discourse to flow in a healthy state.
Conversations that provoke controversy in public can be conducted privately with great nuance and without trolling. You can distinguish between performance and communication. In “Presenting Yourself in Everyday Life,” Erving Hoffman, a 20th-century sociologist, distinguished between “front-line” behavior observed by all and sundry, and “behind-the-scenes” life of rehearsals and training in the company of others who are part of the same. project. “For healthy psychology, we need the back and the first scene,” says Karisa Veliz of Oxford University. «[Online] we are more and more pushing the scene into oblivion. Having more private messages brings back the scene. “
I bet you wonder how I knew
Messaging services differ from social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others in two fundamental respects. One of them is targeting. When users post to Facebook, the company’s software decides which of their “friends” will see the message automatically (the rest will find it just by looking). If the message proves popular, the software will distribute it further. When a user sends a message to WhatsApp, that message is only sent to the person or group they have specified. In messaging programs, people know who they are talking to.
Another difference is one of the business models. Social networking companies need to know what users say they visit and what they like to provide the services they sell to advertisers. And to maximize those sales, they need algorithms that will offer users more things that they enjoy or at least will engage in. Hence their interest in the virus. Messaging services have no reason to read through the shoulders of their users, and in some cases do not have the ability to do so, even if they want to. Some have deliberately acted to suppress virality by limiting the ease with which things can be transmitted.
It is clear that people want what services offer, perhaps more than social networks. In 2019, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg noted that “private messaging, ephemeral stories and small groups are the fastest growing areas of online communication”. The number of people in Europe who use Facebook every day (305 million) has not increased since late 2019, according to the company’s quarterly documents, and in the third quarter of 2020 for the first time the number of daily users in North America fell – a remarkable development in the midst of a pandemic. Globally, according to Sensor Tower, the time spent using the five most downloaded social networking apps has shrunk by 5% in 2020; time spent on messaging programs increased by 2.3%.
Experience, especially in Asia, shows that messaging services can serve as a platform for many other things. In China, WeChat is used for everything from Covid-19 contact tracking to investment; the same is true for KakaoTalk in South Korea. In Japan and Taiwan, a service called Line, built on messages exchanged by individuals and groups of up to 500 people, can be used to read the news, watch videos and call a taxi. Companies make money by charging business users by selling some of their online games and, especially in the case of Line, in the market of “stickers” that allow you to decorate messages with indicators of all possible emotions.
Signal and Telegram, for their part, have no clear plans to make money; they seek to give space for private speech as good in itself. Signal is a California nonprofit supported by a grant from Brian Ecton, the founder of WhatsApp, which earned $ 6.5 billion from the sale of the Facebook app, as well as other donors. The service uses end-to-end encryption, which makes it impossible for the company to view the contents of user messages. WhatsApp licenses and uses the same technology. But Signal goes further in protecting privacy while maintaining an absolute minimum of data about its users. In 2016, the Grand Jury summoned Signal to court for information about two users. All he could offer was the date and time when the account associated with a particular phone number was created, as well as the date and time of the last use.
Moxie Marlinspike, founder of Signal under a pseudonym, said he created it because he wanted to be able to talk to friends who jumped on trains and squatted in abandoned houses without fear of compromising them. But he also believes that privacy is important for social progress: there must be places where you can break the law so that society never goes beyond the bad.
Telegram does not use end-to-end encryption. Her resistance to spying lies not in mathematics, but in the figure of Mr. Durov, a Russian-born billionaire who finances the company with his wealth. For the company, there are ways to read messages encrypted on its servers in Dubai. But Mr. Durov refuses to cooperate with all requests for information or censorship from Russia and with most requests made by everyone else. When Apple asked Telegram to prevent its users from disclosing the personal information of individual Belarusian police officers who are said to be beating protesters, Dr. Urman said, Mr. Durau responded simply to prevent iPhone users from accessing the information.
The fact that messaging companies don’t know what’s going on between their users has detrimental effects. Jonathan Zitrain, a professor of law at Harvard University, says it has the greatest degree of community control that makes it possible and necessary for online communities. Discourse on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook is ultimately driven by the corporate host or agents and authorities of the state in which that host is located. In private messaging spaces, participants themselves play a leading role. Mr Zittrain says it “can lead to stronger communities without requiring extensive terms of service by infrastructure providers”. In other words, private internet spaces are good because they allow those who use them to act with more freedom and a stronger sense of social.
Plans to make me blue
This involves obvious risks. Dr Urman says she has seen radical speeches disappear from the public internet over the past two years. It is reasonable to assume that this is now happening privately. Alex Stamas of Stanford University, a former chief security officer with Facebook, says places that are out of reach of companies or states are likely to be used by people who want to spread child sexual abuse and prepare for terrorist attacks. He also says that certain law enforcement officers are already working to infiltrate such groups, but so far he is unaware of any major disruptions that have included activities in Signal or Telegram.
Clear evidence of a serious crime in such a powerful democracy as America, planned in the Telegram, can test Durov’s courage more than the Kremlin’s refusal. But if Telegram had been compromised, Signal and its successors would have survived, as has the almost equally encrypted WhatsApp. Everyone wants some privacy, and some people want it a lot; people also like spaces where they can control themselves and where they are not overwhelmed by advertising or the opinions of violators. Messaging services give them these things, and many will want to keep them no matter what.■